Stoic advice: how do I tell my kids about their uncertain future?

Children with teacher[Feel free to submit a question for this column, addressing it at massimo at howtobeastoic dot org.]

[Note: this post is part of a special one-week marathon of Stoic advice, which is made necessary by the sheer volume of requests I keep receiving. If you have written and I haven’t gotten to your letter yet, please be patient. If you are interested in the other features of this blog, we’ll resume regular programming next week…]

C. writes: I am a 54 year old Dutchman. Almost my entire life I have had jobs as commercial director for medium sized and large multinational companies. Recently I heard that I will be fired from my current job. In my opinion I will be fired for reasons beyond my control. Therefore I am fully accepting it and I am trying hard to find another job soon. Ultimately, in one way or another, I’ll find a way to make myself useful for society. I must say that I have been very fortunate with my education, career and life so far. I realize — also through studying and practicing philosophy (Taoism and Stoicism in particular) — that I don’t need the status conferred by this job, nor the finances and relative comfort that came along with it.

Some years ago my relationship of 23 years ended. We still get along pretty well, but we both know it’s better to live separately. I offered her a house that I think she deserved, taking a big extra mortgage on my house myself. The kids live with me (two boys 15 and 17 years old). They grew up in a fairly wealthy life style. Not extraordinary, but a lifestyle that was (still is) in line with my relatively high level of income: sports, vacations, music lessons…

So, now I am a man with two wonderful boys, and without a job. Soon I will be having very limited financial resources and I will be forced to sell my spacious house and move to a small apartment. So far the good news. Even though I know that I will cope with whatever nature will give me, my question is: how do I tell my kids? How do I tell them that they too will be confronted with an uncertain future? How do I tell them that we will have to move to a small apartment, and that we will have to cope with fewer financial resources?

They know (and actually appreciate) that I am a practicing philosopher (reading Stoic texts and trying to practice in my daily life). I feel that the situation I am facing right now, is an opportunity for myself (and also for them) to stand the test of applying Stoic philosophy in practice. But I wish to find the right words and actions to convey that message to my kids. In a way that they won’t be harmed too much and yet can learn from. I bought for each of them a copy of Meditations as a Christmas gift. 

I think you have exactly the right attitude, and that you are practicing what you studied. Epictetus would approve:

“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

I empathize with a father’s impulse to shield his children from bad situations. I have a daughter, and she is also familiar with my personal philosophy, and has a copy of the Meditations (though she is not a practicing Stoic). But especially since your boys are past the onset of the age of reason, you can simply talk to them more or less in the way you would to an adult. There is no guarantee they are going to understand the situation fully, and even less so that they’ll like it. But of course that is both natural and clearly outside of your control.

If I were in your shoes I would approach the conversation at three levels. First off, a factual, frank presentation of what is about to happen. Talk about the nature of your job, why you have been let go, and what this will mean in terms of your finances and their life style in the foreseeable future.

Second, put things in perspective for them. Remind them — gently, not in a preachy way — that they have actually been quite fortunate so far in their lives. And that indeed, by world standards even in the 21st century (let alone any other time in history), they are still fortunate, however much they may have a hard time realizing it at the moment.

Third, turn the new situation into a challenge to improve themselves and tackle life’s obstacles, a la Marcus:

“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)

After all:

“The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61)

What is happening to your family is a sudden and unexpected onset, one you can treat as a horrible obstacle barring your way to happiness, or as an opportunity for what stands in the way to be transformed into a new way forward.

This is, of course, also the time to call upon your ex for support, which you may already have done. If not, do not let silly things like pride stand in your way. After all, not only you have acted selflessly and generously toward her, she is the mother of your children. As Epictetus reminds us, there is only one thing of which we can justifiably be proud, all the rest is nonsense:

“What quality belongs to you? The intelligent use of impressions. If you use impressions as nature prescribes, go ahead and indulge your pride, because then you will be celebrating a quality distinctly your own.” (Enchiridion 6)

The best of luck finding a new job, and may your kids learn a good life lesson from this experience.

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Categories: Stoic advice

6 replies

  1. One thing we’re guaranteed in life is the chance to practice stoicism (if you choose) in situations which we’d rather not be in. That’s the good news for all of us haha.

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  2. Hi, what I read here is a man taking action in anticipation of forseeable ‘harm’. Action is based on emotion. My advise is to see this as a new start and the opportunity to ‘travel light’.
    Less ‘international man of action’ and more living in the present.
    About your apartment: in similar circumstances I bought myself a small one. I just came back walking the dog at the beach and now am waiting in my living room for the sight of the predicted snowstorm on the water.
    The lesson I learned sofar is that everything works out nicely especially when not in control.

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  3. Good advice as always. The last quote seems to have a mistake: instead of “impressions as nature enchiridion prescribes”, shouldn’t it be “impressions as nature prescribes”? That’s what the Greek suggests anyway: https://el.wikisource.org/wiki/%CE%95%CE%B3%CF%87%CE%B5%CE%B9%CF%81%CE%AF%CE%B4%CE%B9%CE%BF%CE%BD#%CF%83%CF%84%CA%B9

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  4. Priamus,

    Thanks for catching that! Indeed, “enchiridion” is where the quote is from, it doesn’t belong in the quote.

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  5. Such an inspiring example of applying Stoicism in a real life, current situation. The example will stay with me as I muster the courage to face my own “unfortunate” events with wisdom, courage, justness and moderation. “Bad fortune born nobly is good fortune.” Love that quote.

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  6. Please allow me to second “best of luck to that gentleman”. I did not get fired but “left a big job in the city” (Creedence Clearwater). A passage in a Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton on paraphrasing Rousseau (A Stoic?) … reflects my life for the past dozen years ….”feast on the great wealth that comes from aspiring to very little”. Minimalism has been astounding for my life … wish I had taken that road 50 years ago.

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